As the saying goes, if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself. This has been the mantra of a Denver musical entity, The Chain Gang of 1974, an electro rock gang-of-one with Kamtin Mohager at the helm.
In just 18 months, Kamtin has grown his Gang’s presence from a start-up solo act, featuring himself, a bass guitar and prerecorded backing tracks, into a viable music machine to be reckoned with.
A strong vision, belief in the songs he was creating and a DIY work ethic has led to over 160 shows, which is more than half of what was done by his previous alt rock band, The Vanity, during its year and a half run.
As we sit in the Dazbog patio, enjoying the perfect 72 degree weather, Kamtin reflected, “Playing in The Vanity was one of the best years of my life. Playing with my two brothers and my best friend. The funny thing is; people are just now starting to miss that band.”
It was a close but no cigar scenario. With a pending label deal on the table, The Vanity got together with their lawyer, who recommended a trip to L.A. with a producer to record the album proper. The trip and recording was a success, and with their completed album in hand, the label came back with double the original offer. But it was already too late.
Although they had a solid set of songs recorded, the group knew they couldn’t move beyond that point. “We just couldn’t write songs together anymore,” he explained. “From day one, with our name and our image, people hated us. They told me later, ‘We loved your music, but we hated the vibe. You guys came off as pretentious assholes.’ I feel like we kind of killed it from the get go. So much wasn’t accomplished that I wanted.”
After seeing the writing on the wall before the end of the group in 2007 and unable to let go of that musical itch, Kamtin created The Chain Gang of 1974 in December of 2006. The Vanity had already invested money in recording equipment, and with little to zero knowledge, he dove in. “I just sat down and decided I was going to learn this stuff. So I did and started recording my own music.”
Still on The Vanity track, Kamtin wrote a series of what he called “song-y songs,” and it was his brother Kamyar who got him to shift into the next Gang gear. “My older brother is a huge U.K. head. Oasis are his gods, Pulp, and Stone Roses, all that kinda stuff. He’s always like, ‘Dude, if you like Kasabian listen to Primal Scream.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, yeah, whatever.’ So one day I’m driving in the car with my friend and [Kamyar] had his iPod in and was play XTRMN8R and “Kill All Hippies” came on, and that was it. The year that that album came out, it was so ahead of its time. If you listen to Nine Inch Nails and Kasabian, they were so heavily influenced by that album.”
In February of 2007 Chain Gang released a self-made EP, The Dirt, which led with a mixture of raw energy and technical spice, pulled together with a dirty and dirgy guitar thread and Kamtin’s vocal commands. May followed with another free EP release, When The Apple Drops, which showed progress as a result of numerous shows under his belt in just a few short months, along with his continued comfort in sitting at the solo songwriter’s chair.
One thing Kamtin will never deny is where he gets his inspiration, as he wears his musical influences on his hoodie’s sleeve. “The music I’m playing. The music I’m writing, it’s familiar. You can hear the influences of Primal Scream, Jesus and Mary Chain, LCD Soundsystem, those bass riffs,” but it’s all about catching people off guard a bit. “They may go, ‘Really? There was no chorus in that song, or there was only one verse. What’s going on?’ But it works and it flows. That’s the X-factor and that’s what I want in my music. And these days everyone wants to just go off what’s popular. I can’t stand it.”
With the advent of technologies that enable one like Kamtin to start a band in a bedroom, he sees it as both a good and a bad thing. “Now there’s thousands and thousands of bands on MySpace. There’s this whole new scene of artists that are just crap in my opinion. Good for them that they’re having success. I only get upset because there are so many other amazing bands that are so much better, that don’t get any time of day because they’re not the ‘cool thing’ to listen to these days. That just gets to me and I absolutely despise it.”
As much as things have advanced in terms of technology, there’s one thing that remains the same. One can’t escape the penchant of easily absorbed music that a 13-year old and her mother listen to on their way to soccer practice. And now that the O.C. is gone and a new generation of 90210 spoiled kids have come in to take their rightful place in the fall line up, there will no doubt be a slew of soundtracks to carry on that ‘easy listening for teens’ tradition.
Digging into other artist’s music for inspiration is commonplace in the songwriting world. Some may pull a Vanilla Ice from time to time, while others prefer to shut out other music for fear it will impact their songwriting in some way.
“I felt really weird about the way I write songs because…well, I felt weird until I listened to an interview with Coldplay about how they write songs. They basically find a song written by a band where they’re so jealous they didn’t write it. And then they go with their own version of that track. Then it becomes their own.
I was surprised because it was the way I write songs. Listen to [my] ‘DANCEKISSLOVEMOVE,’ and then listen to ‘North American Scum’ from LCD Soundsystem.”
Ryan Adams, his favorite artist “of all time,” is one that changes up his music style with every album release, “he has a theme that always seems to fall in line with whatever is going on in my own life at the time.”
Adams comes to mind during the more introspective Chain Gang songs like “South Carolina,” which break away from the neon dance, party time, showing a quiet, piano soaked, contemplative side. It’s a side that may not appear in his live show, but is a refreshing listen and look at a different facet of his persona.
The Stills, Logic Will Break Your Heart, is one album that had a significant impact on him not only when he was in The Vanity, but in his Chain Gang songwriting. “That record; Oh, my God. I wanted to be that album for a while. I just wanted everything that that album had.
Some people may be, ‘Oh, you’re just ripping off artists.’ But no, I’m completely inspired by what they’re doing. I’m not copying anything. I have a way of writing my own songs and my own music, along with that X-factor. Basically, I want to write an album that I would want to listen to.”
That’s exactly what he does. Unlike some actors that can’t stand to watch themselves on the big screen, Kamtin does listen to his own songs not only because he enjoys them, but as any artist, he hears and feels the flaws. This is just one way he recognizes ways he wants to tweak his own formula.
Earlier this year, and although it had only been a year, the Chain Gang leader started to feel like he was ready for the next chapter. Maybe this solo gig could really turn into something full-time. He sees how the Flobots and The Fray have gone national, even international, and recalls a show The Vanity played with The Flobots where there were just six people in the crowd.
“And look at them now. It’s because they worked their asses off. I wanted to push it and push, played a shit-ton of shows, and let things happen naturally. I mean, 3OH!3 just started by having fun and being carefree. Now look at them. Just now, this is happening with Chain Gang.”
Yep. It was only a matter of time before the music industry folks came a-callin’. At the ripe age of 23 and with four years of music business experience under his belt, Kamtin is wise beyond his years and has put aside ego in favor of logic, reason and street smarts. “The industry is full of people who just want to talk. They want to get you excited…I’ve been dealing with that crap since I was 19 with The Vanity. Majors were coming to us and then disappearing. And with Chain Gang, I’ve had two record deals already that have just gone away.”
Where he has found gold is in his manager, Andrew McInnes, A&R for Epic/Sony in New York, who approached him earlier this year. They did the usual periodic emails and calls back and forth, until one day when the universe seemed intervene with perfect timing. He already had a random trip to New York City planned in August, which coincided with an inquiry from McInnes on when he would be visiting the city.
“When I got to the Sony office, we totally hit it off. He comes from the old punk days, and I was a huge pop punk kid; loved Pennywise, Less Than Jake, Goldfinger. His partners are awesome. So we said, ‘Let’s do it.’ And it’s been great ever since.”
So now the two have been working as a team, with Kamtin feeding him previous contacts and interests while McGuinness connects to his own rolodex. So far there are several top shelf booking agents interested, which have rosters whose acts not only get press in the Rolling Stone and Spin level of press, but who get hooked into the larger summer festivals. There’s no doubt that Kamtin is envisioning himself playing on the stages of Lollapalooza and Coachella in ’09.
When it comes to how much emphasis he puts on MySpace, which no doubt, led views of his profile and song listens to a phone call asking about the status of his management, he doesn’t consider it the end-all-be-all.
In some ways, MySpace plays seem to have replaced Soundscan, since only a handful of bands get commercial radio airplay, “It gives bands the impression that if you’re not breaking 10,000 plays a day you’re never gonna make it. Every band that’s a MySpace band, they’re huge. But when you look at them realistically, those bands aren’t selling records. Those bands aren’t pulling any kids to shows. It’s something based on a website, and they’re not making music that’s gonna last forever.”
The reason being that those that are responsible for the big hit play numbers are mainly young teenagers that spend a lot of time online, but little to no money buying music or going to shows.
“I do okay on MySpace. But I’d much rather play to 50 people that understand what I’m doing because they love the whole vibe of LCD Soundsystem, disco-party type of music, rather than, ‘Oh my God, all my friends loves this band and are all gonna be there,’ where now it’s become a scene.”
This is where the adage, “music is not a fashion accessory” comes into play. It separates the people who merely listen to the radio or what’s on the hot list versus those who turn to music to get them through tough times, to celebrate the good times, and yes, making a midnight set time on a Monday night, wearing whatever was clean on their bedroom floor.
Even before he got on the music business path, Kamtin was at a crossroads in his music writing and EP making. The bedroom productions had run their course. He needed another party to take him to the next level.
That party, or person, was Christophe Eagleton, a studio producer and member of Astra Maveo. A friend of Kamtin’s, a former Vanity member and current singer/guitarist in Astra Moveo, Brandon Paluska, introduced Kamtin to Christophe’s work. “I thought, ‘Holy shit. I need to work with this guy.’ I sent him an email out of the blue and basically told him that I needed him to produce my next record and I would quit Chain Gang if he didn’t.”
A few days went by and Kamtin admits that he was a bit nervous, but knew in his heart that it could only go one way. “I had all these songs in my head, but I didn’t have the programs. I didn’t have the studio to do it.” But the response came from Christophe and the green light was on.
So far Mad Paranoid has been nine months in the making, due to Christophe’s client recording schedule and Chain Gang’s tour schedule. But he’s pretty ecstatic with the results. After just one listen to “The Teenage Love Sound” that’s currently playing on the Chain Gang MySpace, it’s blazingly clear how far Kamtin has come and what can happen when you put a pro like Christophe in charge of making magic happen. “It’s constantly evolving. It’s such a diverse album, which I’m so, so happy about.”
The actual release date is still up in the air as he contemplates putting it in the safe until the right label deal comes along.
And apparently, the two are already thinking onto the next album, which Kamtin plans to be very different from Mad Paranoid, with a more varied vibe and a stripped down, weird dance element. He’s also got another six-song EP in the shelf that’s made up of more slow, emotional and personal songs. And another EP idea is more acoustic, piano style music that he plans to give out for free. Then there’s the 70s love ballad mashup EP he created for his mom. Okay, I’m bullshitting on that last one.
For Chain Gang, he’s commited to the lighting practice of never hitting, or doing the same thing twice. At the same time, he promises fans that he will never loose the essence of his music that drew fans to him from the get go.
He’s also pretty adamant about continuing his free music tradition, even when that record deal comes along, and will only go with a label that allows him a clause to run his remix and EP projects outside of the full-length release.
“Why make people pay for music where you’re not even at a point to do that. I’m not at a point to charge for my music; fucking have it. Share it with your friends. Enjoy it. I put one of my songs off the album as a download on MySpace, and now there’s 4,000 people out there with my song on their iPod. That’s amazing. Music is changing like the industry is changing. Free music is where it’s at.”
In October The Chain Gang of 1974 will be hitting up cities that have yet to feel up the “New York Dressed Girl,” sweat to the infectious “We At The Disco,” or kick up their feet to “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!” Having been invited by the 3OH!3 duo to join them on their six week, 25-city tour, Kamtin is already receiving emails from excited fans, eager to have him visit their hometown.
He’ll even be sharing the tour bus with Nathan and Sean, which should be a rolling party unto itself. “I’ve been on tours in a Ford Explorer. I’ve played on a farm in Kansas. I’ve played in the back of an Italian restaurant, so I think I’ve paid my dues.”
Kamtin is also very grateful to 3OH!3 for coming through on their promise. “I’ve opened for 3OH!3 seven times. From day one, they’ve always have my back. They always said they were going to take me on tour and they stuck to their word.”
On the tour he’ll have his DIY Mad Mixtape, which will include two tracks from the upcoming record along with remixes “Electronic Dirt” TCGO’74 vs. Foals Hood Internet Remix, Double Dragon, Matt & Isim (Matt from Young Coyotes), The White Tie Affair, plus the music video for “We The Disco.”
As Kamtin’s stomach starts to growl, having only caffeine running through his system at the hour of two in the afternoon, he thinks back to when he recorded his first bedroom track, laughing. “I always give my friend crap about this. I showed him my songs, ‘Did you hear this?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, it’s cool, but it’ll never go anywhere.’”
I wonder, after 160 shows in just 18 months (including two upcoming sold-out shows at The Gothic), prepping for a six-week tour and winning Westword’s Best Electro Act this past summer, I where his friend considers “anywhere” is.
So what’s next beside the new album and a possible record deal? With a sly grin, almost mocking himself he says, “Best New Act in NME. That would be cool.”